"Images of Mount Athos in English Literature
A Talk Delivered to World Public Forum, "Dialogue of Civilizations" in Salzburg (Austria) July 2011
It is easy to forget that the British are an Island people. Yet, bounded as we are by sapphire and icy Atlantic seas, we ourselves remain ever mindful of this fact. Equally, it is often convenient to put aside the evidence that our “septred Isle”, to quote Shakespeare, is openly analogous to other, similar, lands. Indeed, Japan instantly springs to mind for the purposes of comparison, on both a literary and artistic level. We are, after all, two small, proud, nations at the edge of a mighty continent, whereon most of the major cultural and scientific advances take place; innovations, which slowly trickle to our mutually emerald shores. The Renaissance, of course, provides us moderns with an obvious example of monumental developments proceeding at their own pace in English society during the Tudor period. However, once such progressions find root in Island soil, the necessary genius of geographical restriction transmutes these materials into something quite unique. This may be why Japan looks with fear as well as admiration at China, as do the British at the Continent of Europe. If we are, therefore, truly gathered here today in this stunning city of Salzburg to explore the influence of Holy Mount Athos on wider aspects of European cultural life, then neither clerical nor academic opinions will suffice to fully investigate this extraordinary spiritual phenomenon.
Confessedly, in ages past, the perceived exoticism of mainland society was a perennial cause for moral concern; perhaps particularly among the British. Innate puritanical tendencies (deemed vital to island survival), understood more ancient and sophisticated cultures either as decadent, or in terms of faraway fairytale. And Byzantium was a place in point. It was a long way away from the North in every sense of the phrase, and known for its elaborate customs. Moreover, its bejeweled spirituality was held with a deep suspicion. It could not be condemned as pagan, but neither was it seen as honestly Christian. Hence, with a modality usually bewildering to non-islanders, even its glittering sanctuaries of prayer were viewed as threatening; wellsprings of potential glamour, full of dangerous, or archaic, ideas. A reflection shared by British travel writers such as Dr. John Covel (1638-1722), and the actual source of irony penned by Edward Lear (1812-88) regarding monastic life on Mount Athos itself. Undeniably, a letter to Lady Waldegreen records the satirist’s remark, “so I am looking forward to escaping from the hustlefusledom and perhaps may settle down as a monk at Mount Athos eventually.” Nonetheless, this is “nonsense”. Lear, himself, could only see superstition coupled with a sever form of evasion from worldly responsibilities within its monastic institutions.
Exceptions to these prejudicial pronouncements are, however, to be found amongst British visionary and Romantic Poets. As the Second Great Tradition, English Literature frequently thirsted towards the Metaphysical and the Sacred in a manner reminiscent of ancient First Tradition Greek philosophers. Unequivocally, the demanding disciplines of an Aristotelian lifestyle devoted to qualitative consciousness, coupled with the complex and rigorous religious practices of the holy men, became a focus of inspiration - as well as an unsettling reminder of the Numinous - to many writers. For Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), Mount Athos was the embodiment of an immortal witness to fleeting human affairs. As he writes in his The Apologie for Poetrie; “Under Mount Athos in 492 BC, so Xerxes cut a canal through its isthmus”. With these telling and evocative lines, this Elizabethan gallant enchants his readers with a sense of historical significance, while alluding to uncomfortable inhuman realities beyond Court politics. During the same period, Edmund Spenser (1552-99), famed author of The Faerie Queene, wrote an eclogue drawn almost entirely from Virgil, which describes Mount Athos in terms of disturbing conundrum. Overtly, this other Elizabethan gallant almost chants the lines, “Nor how Mount Athos through exceeding might/ was digged down” in order to draw attention to its enigmatic nature. A theme Dr. Johnson (1709-84) elaborated in the renowned Samuel Johnson Collection when reminding his own readership that, although sometimes obscure, Spenser’s translation of the Virgilian Culex remains an evocation of neglected lore.
Most surprisingly, a few centuries later it was Lord Byron (1788-1824), who succumbed to the presence of the Holy Mountain. Anecdotal testimony still holds that, although never setting foot on its slopes - and probably only having seen the mountain from a distance - this leading Romantic felt moved to compose his fragmentary poem, The Monk of Athos. As we may read in this strangely pious and somewhat uncharacteristic work:
Beside the confines of the Aegean Main,
Where northward Macedonia bounds the flood,
And views opposed the Asiatic plain,
Where once the pride of lofty Ilium stood,
Like the great Father of the giant brood,
With lowering port majestic Athos stands,
Crowned with the verdure of eternal wood,
As yet unspoiled by sacrilegious hands,
And throws his mighty shade o’er seas and distant lands.
And deep embosomed in his shady groves
Full many a convent rears its glittering spire,
Mid scenes where Heavenly Contemplation loves
To kindle in her soul her hallowed fire,
Where air and sea with rocks and woods conspire
To breathe a sweet religious calm around,
Weaning the thoughts from every low desire,
And the wild waves that break with murmuring sound
Along the rocky shore proclaim it holy ground.
Sequestered shades where Piety has given
A quiet refuge from each earthly care,
Whence the rapt spirit may ascend to Heaven!
Oh, ye condemned the ills of life to bear!
As with advancing age your woes increase,
What bliss amidst these solitudes to share
The happy foretaste of eternal Peace,
Till Heaven in mercy bids your pain and sorrows cease.
Curiously, Byron is on the verge of adopting a view sub species aeternitatis in these lines. Beyond argument, it is additionally one of his many (frequently overlooked) attempts to describe Sublime feeling within his corpus. It may be wise to remind ourselves at this juncture that Edmund Burke (1729-92), defined the Sublime in terms of delight mixed with terror or pain, and produced by an “infinite object”. In other words, it is an aesthetic value closely akin, and perhaps leading to, the Beatific Vision; whereby a glimpse of the Noumenon is vouchsafed to the favoured. Nevertheless, it is reasonably certain that Byron was not seriously tempted to retreat to Mount Athos and take up a life of religious contemplation.
In more recent years, British writers visiting the Holy Mountain included figures such as Frederick William Hasluck (1878-1920), an archaeologist of note who worked at the British School in Athens. For his part, Hasluck published a book on Mount Athos and its monasteries within which he confronted his own preconceived repugnance of monasticism in general, along with “Greek” monasticism as non-productive and socially “parasitic” in particular. Curiously, it was a quarrel with one of the Brothers that defused this potentially explosive situation and deconstructed his rancor towards the sanctity of these cloisters. Undoubtedly, the existential encounter of actually meeting a member of the Community led to a wider recognition of spiritual authenticity.
Perhaps the most neoteric visitor to the Blessed Mount in the last few years was the impulsive and rather restless Critic Peter Levi (1931-2000). At one stage, he had been a Jesuit priest himself, having received theological training at Heythrop College in London. Beside this, he is known as Bruce Chatwin’s (1940-89), companion to Afghanistan in the 1970’s, when Chatwin was searching for traces of Greek culture in this sadly overlooked region. At the risk of digression, maybe I should mention Chatwin himself is said to have made arrangements for his own Baptism on Holy Mount Athos just prior to his untimely passing. Be that as it may, as a Professor of poetry, biographer, and gadfly about Oxford, Levi treasured his stay amongst the holy men of Athos. In fact, he eventually stated that monks across the world attract fewer suspicions these days than in the past, due to the fact that conflicting Church passions had cooled. Somewhat contrarily, his evocative book The Frontiers of Paradise: A Study of Monks and Monasteries, demonstrated an unabated enthusiasm for the monastic life, which stands previous British apprehensions on their head. Levi even chides Henry VIII over the dissolution of the Monasteries and remarks upon the intellectual and cultural contributions to our society made by men called to continual prayer through realized vocation.
On a personal level, the intricate ritual of Orthodox Christianity has always been a source of elation for me. Already implicit in the re-enactments of Sacred story: the liturgical adornments of eucharistic vestment, portable lights, incense, icons and choral chants, are the aesthetic structures that allow participation in the transcendently Beautiful. In addition, the pains of our world seem to be subsumed in these ornamented metaphors. Mistakes, they sadly say, colour the contours of our lives. Many a man, they testify, bitterly regrets the time he had seen “red”, while intoxicated in a Tavern. Equally, these analogies admit, the “blues” of domestic vacuity often haunt long-term relationships through a dangerously numbing drudgery. Such metalinguistic opulence, consequently, asserts that our misdemeanours invariably lead to moments of Faith as well as Heroism. In a manner reminiscent of a diamond-encrusted Byzantine alter piece, there is the prismatic suggestion that human life can be understood from three radically contrasting angles. As a scientific problem needing to be solved; an act of abstract Creation; or a dazzling Mystery within which the truly courageous choose to battle. Focusing intelligently appears to be our single choice. Thereupon, it may be British playwrights who offer more insightful comment on the dialogue of civilizations than English clergymen. This is because performers are aware that Truth, Compassion and Beauty are never captured by a system of ideas and that textual rigor simply cannot present the only significant method by which the spiritually enlightened can express their pilgrimage into higher states of Being.
Having claimed that, I will leave the last authorial comment of my literary ramble to a soldier. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) is known to have celebrated his twenty-first birthday on Blessed Mount Athos with the Russian monks. Indeed, from an early age he admired the fact that these holy men lived a Spartan life of prayer, practically unchanged for a thousand years. Moreover, Sir Patrick, or Paddy (as he is universally known), respected their determination to embrace the challenging conditions of this Greek peninsula as one of their principle teachers in the religious life. Like them, he too seems to have perceived Holy Athos as a teacher. And there we have it! British writers have viewed the Mount as a danger to piety; a pleasant place to visit while travelling through Greece, an escape from the grinding demands of the world, a witness to human folly, a treasure-trove of ageless lore and even a lens through which we can glimpse Eternity. But it takes a military man to grasp the essence of the issue. The impact of Mount Athos on the world of British Letters is discernible in its ageless lesson of vigorous endurance. It is a symbol of unchanging, but Radical Tradition. It is, coequally, a clarion call reminding us of the cultural treasures our disparate (even though ultimately united) peoples have gifted to history. Lastly it is, as Paddy reminds us, one of the principle spiritual tutors of a continuous European identity."